The Level 4 autonomous service, which began in August after Ministry of Transportation approval and a rigorous third-party audit, is deployed on five routes between Loblaw’s retail stores and a micro-fulfilment centre
Yes, you can believe your eyes.
Motorists and pedestrians in the Greater Toronto Area who’ve recently spotted a driverless white box truck with a PC Express logo steering through traffic can rest easy. They aren’t seeing things.
Since August, Loblaw and its autonomous middle-mile logistics company partner, Gatik, which has offices in Palo Alto and Toronto, have been running regular commercial deliveries — deploying full Level 4 autonomous operation — between five retail stores and a micro-fulfillment centre in the city’s west end.
The deployment, which followed Gatik’s receipt of a fully driverless permit from Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation in April, is a first in Canada, says Gautam Narang, Gatik CEO, in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.
Inherent safety benefit
“There’s no requirement to have anyone in the cabin. And it’s specific to our use case. Our use case is B2B short-haul logistics, we do the same routes day in and day out. So, there is an inherent safety benefit,” says Narang.
Gatik’s vehicles — Ford Transit 350 14-foot refrigerated box trucks — are running 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, in support of Loblaw’s PC Express online shopping service.
“Being the first in Canada with this technology and deploying a fully driverless solution is exciting and illustrates our commitment to making grocery shopping better for customers,” says David Markwell, chief technology and analytics officer at Loblaw, in a press release.
“Working with Gatik, we’ve demonstrated that autonomous driving technology enables supply chain efficiency, moving orders more frequently for our customers.”
Driverless trucks first launched with Walmart
Narang, originally from India, is a permanent Canadian resident. He co-founded Gatik with his brother, Arjun, and Apeksha Kumavat, Gatik’s chief engineer, in California in 2017 and they opened a Canadian office in 2019.
Loblaw and Gatik began autonomous deliveries in 2020 with a single truck — with a safety driver behind the wheel — and then expanded that to five trucks in January 2021, operating on the same routes that have now gone driverless.
In that span, the companies say they conducted more than 150,000 autonomous deliveries with a 100 per cent safety record.
The move to Loblaw driverless service follows a similar step Gatik took with Walmart in Arkansas, where it launched fully driverless trucks in November 2021 — and is a blueprint for Gatik’s plans going forward.
“When we expand to a new route, for a period of time we operate those routes in autonomous mode with a safety driver on board. Once we have enough experience, enough data, and we can validate the technology for that specific route, that’s when we take the step of removing the safety driver,” Narang explains.
In the Loblaw vehicles, Narang says, Gatik currently still has an attendant in the passenger seat. But it is a courtesy, not a regulatory requirement.
“The feedback we have received from some emergency services — the police department and the fire department — was that in case they need to pull the truck over they wanted someone to interact with,” he says.
“Something like this has never been done before, so our approach to going about these milestones is to keep all the stakeholders involved throughout the process, collect feedback and go about it the right way. Obviously, they are getting used to the new normal as well.”
The data Gatik accumulated while conducting those 150,000 deliveries all fed back into its technology development and helped strengthened its capacity to go driverless. It also played a key role in its permit application to the Ministry of Transportation.
“We’ve been working with them since 2019,” says Narang. “Last year we started engaging with MTO around how we were going to do it. Based on the time [we’d been operating] and the assessment they did on their end — we shared a bunch of data with them — we now have enough proof points to get everyone comfortable.”
Everyone, it turned out, except Loblaw. Before its board of directors would sign off on the driverless service, it hired a third-party firm to conduct an independent security and safety review — a level of scrutiny that not even Walmart required before launching its driverless service in Arkansas.
“They had access to our truck for three months,” says Narang. “They tried to break the system. At no point were they able to, one, gain control of the truck or, second, get the truck to do an unsafe or an unexpected behaviour. At no point they were able to do that.”
According to the details of a separate press release dedicated to the safety review, the third-party team’s evaluation covered standards from ISO/SAE and NHTSA including security standards NIST Framework, SAE J3061, ISO/SAE 21434 and UNECE R155.
“The assessment included a rigorous suite of system as well as component level tests, the successful completion of which provided clear and comprehensive validation that Gatik’s fully driverless technology is acceptably safe to operate on public roads,” the release says.
Strong commercial case
Narang draws a sharp distinction between Gatik’s ability to continue deploying fully driverless middle-mile service on fixed routes and AV companies that aim to deploy driverless vehicles in business-to-consumer applications where vehicles go right to the consumer’s door.
“It’s a much broader [technical] problem. These companies are trying to boil the ocean. It will happen, but not anytime soon.”
Gatik, he says, is happy to live and breathe and play using Level 4 autonomy.
“We do perfect driving in a geo-fenced area. In this case, the geo-fence is our repeatable routes. We cannot use this technology the next day in another province in Canada. And we’re fine with that. There is a strong commercial case, a strong benefit, when it comes to operating the trucks without anyone on board on the same routes.”
This use case is also ideally suited not just for autonomous vehicles but for going electric as well, he says, although currently Gatik’s only electric fleet is one it is operating with Walmart in New Orleans.
“Electrification goes in hand in hand … because of the kind of distances that are involved,” says Narang. The Loblaw routes (from depot to micro-fulfilment centre to the stores) are only 10s of kilometres, but some of its U.S. routes are up much longer. “The best part is that we can get in a charge while the goods are being loaded at the hub location. And we can also get a charge while the goods are being unloaded at the drop off location. So you can have this cycle of continuous operation with autonomous and electrification.”
Gatik, which does not sell the trucks or license its technology — operating with an “autonomous delivery as a service model” instead — has plans to electrify the whole fleet, Narang says.
Ontario’s driverless truck fleet to double
A third factor supporting Gatik’s autonomous business model is rapidly rising consumer demand for e-commerce, which took off during the pandemic — and growth in services like PC Express, which offers customers a two-hour delivery or pickup window.
“It comes down to enabling this kind of service without additional cost,” says Narang. “End consumers expect certain privileges, and no one wants to pay more for those privileges. So that’s what automation comes in. And it’s not just in retail and grocery, it’s across the different supply chains.”
For Gatik, this spells growth — some of it quite soon, Narang says. Within the next year, he says Gatik’s fleet in Ontario will grow from five vehicles to double digits, though he declines to say if it means more growth with Loblaw or a different client.
This growth also means Gatik is already looking for additional space for its Canadian operations in Toronto, despite moving into a refurbished 12,000-square-foot facility in early 2021 which doubles both as a research facility as well as the operating hub for its fleet.
“As a company, we are well over 100 people across different locations. We expect that we’ll be hiring about 200 [more] people by 2025,” says Narang.
“In Canada, specifically, we are just over 40 headcount. But we’re adding one or two people almost on a weekly basis,” including “AI-machine-learning-robotics-related talent” as well as operational and managerial personnel.
Professional drivers, one assumes, need not apply.